‘The gap in attainment between the very poorest and the rest is actually widening. Why?’

Much has been written about the underperformance of white British children. But there are other very pressing issues to explore too, writes CentreForum's executive director

News article image

CentreForum published its first annual report on Education in England last week. Using a series of "world-class benchmarks", the report considers how well the country, different areas and different pupils are performing against those benchmarks.

For many in the education sector, the findings were unsurprising, if a little disheartening. But some have also questioned the report’s objectives and purpose. David Laws, CentreForum’s executive chairman, has already written for the TES on the importance of setting goals and holding both government and the sector to account, and so I won’t repeat those points (other than to say CentreForum isn’t sorry for having clear ambitions for education). But it is worth reflecting for a moment on why new data and analysis has such an important place in public policy development.

Poorest pupils left further behind

Over the course of writing the report and working with the excellent Mike Treadaway from Education DataLab on the analysis of the national pupil database, a number of interesting findings and trends emerged. Had we included all of them, the report would still be unpublished and would be running into hundreds of pages.

What struck me most while writing the report was what we found about the gap between disadvantaged pupils and the rest. National figures show that the gap is generally closing each year, and our analysis supported that. But, more detailed analysis uncovered some striking findings that I had thought would be the main public interest story. We found that, despite the gap generally closing over time at all key stages, for the most disadvantaged secondary pupils (those who have been eligible for free school meals for at least 80 per cent of their lives), the gap is actually widening. In other words, the poorest secondary school pupils are leaving school further behind their peers than they were 10 years ago.

We also found that key stage 2 teachers have been successful in halving the gap in progress made by disadvantaged pupils and their peers but more needs to be done in the early years and during KS1 if we are to make any further, meaningful erosions to the disadvantage gap. Some incredibly powerful insights here for both primary and secondary schools – and indeed for government in considering where they ought to focus attention.

Focus on white British pupils

But as many TES readers would have noted, the finding that received the most publicity this week was the relatively poor performance of white British children. Perhaps those who are more media-savvy than I would have predicted this; I didn’t. Not because it isn’t an interesting or important finding, it is both. But because, while having the performance of white British pupils presented in such stark terms is relatively new in the mainstream press, I hadn’t fully appreciated that many people didn’t know or understand why this is happening. Every interview that I and CentreForum colleagues gave focused almost entirely on the white British issue, seeking our views on why this happens and, in some cases, who is to blame. As we have said throughout the week, we do not understand fully the reasons for this, and it’s far too complex an issue to apportion blame. Further research is needed that goes beyond a statistical analysis of the national pupil database.

But this week’s coverage highlights the importance of new data analysis and the merits of linking performance to goals. I’m pretty confident that there was nothing in our report that most of the education sector didn’t already know. Not because they are statisticians who eagerly crunch through the performance data (although many will be), but because they are seasoned professionals who live and breathe education and see first-hand where the challenges and successes lie. But for the rest of the public, this new analysis sheds light on extremely important issues and elevates those issues into the forefront of public debate. So while there are some critics who question what we do and why we do it, this week’s coverage demonstrated the value of pushing those issues into the mainstream, ensuring that it is not just those in the sector who worry about why underperformance exists and how to tackle it. This remains a driving purpose for CentreForum and our programme of work will start to unpick many of these intractable issues.

Natalie Perera is executive director and head of research at thinktank CentreForum. She tweets at @natalieperera1

Want to keep up with the latest education news and opinion? Follow TES on Twitter and like TES on Facebook

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you

Latest stories